Why the clothes make the woman (or man)
Have you ever heard of the concept embodied cognition? Neuroscientists are exploring the idea that certain movements or physical aspects of the body can actually change aspects of the mind. For instance, one study explored how the act of physically smiling (using a pencil in the mouth to simulate the muscles in the face that are used when smiling) can make you feel happier and recover more quickly from stress (my apologies, I cannot remember the authors of this study). In her famous TED Talk, Amy Cuddy explained how taking on a power pose - a physical pose with your body whereby you take up more space such as standing with feet apart and arms raised out - increased levels of testosterone (confidence hormone) and decreased levels of cortisol (stress hormone) if the pose was held for at least 2 minutes. Pretty cool stuff, huh? Check out her talk here.
Another related concept is that of enclothed cognition, which psychologists are researching and exploring now. The concept refers to the notion that our clothing affects our psychological processes. Specifically, the actual wearing of certain clothing items and the meanings we assign to those clothing items directly and indirectly affect how we think and behave.
Adam & Galinsky (2012) conducted a study to explore the relationship between our clothing and behavior. In their 3-part experimental study, they demonstrated that wearing a lab coat increased attention. Interestingly, attention increased only when the lab coat was actually worn by the participant and when the lab coat was associated with a doctor. They actually tried the test with participants wearing the lab coat but they told the participants it was a painter’s coat, and this had no affect on attention (i.e., wearing no lab coat and wearing a “painter’s coat” elicited the same results in the attention test). Therefore, the meanings assigned to the coat, in this case a doctor’s coat, had the impact of improving attention. By the way, attention was chosen as the psychological process to measure in this study because it was associated in prior studies as a characteristic of a doctor.
So if we follow the same logic, someone dressed in a business suit will think, feel, and act more competent, authoritative, and in line with the group culture (all of which are characteristics associated with a business suit) or someone dressed in sexy clothing will think, feel, and act sexier. The key point here is knowing what the general societal meanings are of the clothing items, which are largely similar across the population. Granted, certain clothing and appearance meanings change over time. For example, 50 years ago tattoos were associated with lower or working class status and often considered deviant, whereas today they are more commonly accepted and widespread across status, gender, and ethnicity. Nearly one-third of Millennials have a tattoo and showcasing tattoos is commonplace in popular culture (think Rihanna, Lena Dunham, Adam Levine, David Beckham, to name just a few celebrities). While the meanings may change over time, societal ideas about the actual meanings at any given time are generally consistent across a large portion of the population.
What does this mean for our everyday life? We’ve heard the adage to dress for the job you want or the notion that students should dress up on exam days in order to perform better but now there is evidence to suggest that the clothes do indeed make the man or woman to a certain extent. Actors have long known the affect of this as they use their appearance to help take on the role of the character. You can do this for yourself also by adopting the clothing and appearance cues for the role you wish to adopt.
This is a reason I always tell people to wear a jacket to an interview - an interview of any sort, even for a part-time food service job - because not only will you look more authoritative and competent but you also will actually feel more authoritative and competent. Dressing for a role helps you feel you embody the characteristics of that role. I also suggest that on days you feel less motivated, try dressing up a little because it might just improve your mood!